[note: latest version of the opera database, March 2022, is here https://wophil.org/500ops/ ]
Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is happy to unveil our newly-updated database of 500+ Operas by Women! We invited Dr. Penny Brandt (one of the two noted scholars who worked on the update) to comment.
“Why is nobody performing operas by female composers?” asked ClassicFM, a UK-based Independent National Radio station with a popular website by the same name, in 2016. The question was a response to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of an opera by woman since 1903, which ran as part of the 2016–2017 season.
“Damn good question,” I thought to myself as I read this and other articles about the production, posting them furiously on the social media sites for the Women Composers Festival of Hartford and inviting everyone I knew to attend. As a feminist musicologist teaching at the nearby University of Connecticut, I put the dates in my calendar immediately. I could only have been more excited if the Met had decided to produce Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater, which premiered in 2006 and for which Saariaho has described being inspired by her personal experience with pregnancy and hearing the polyrhythm created by two heartbeats inside of her own body. Alas, it was my own experience with this same polyrhythm that caused me to miss my once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness an opera created by a woman as performed on one of my favorite stages (where I have attended productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose, Bizet’s Carmen, and Tchaikovsky’s Onegin, among others). L’amour de Loin was presented only eight times at the Met between December 1 and December 29, 2016. My son was born following a difficult pregnancy that culminated in an emergency cesarean that first week in December.
Am I being a bit dramatic to cry that I’ve missed my only chance to see an opera by a woman at the Met? I’m not sure yet. Last season, the Met announced it is developing two new operas by women: a commission to composer Missy Mazzoli (http://www.missymazzoli.com) based on George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo and Jeanine Tesori’s opera Grounded, which was also partly developed through the commissioning program that the Met Opera established with the Lincoln Center Theater in 2006. It is unclear when these operas will be performed or whether they will even be performed on the main stage. The Met Orchestra has also declared its intention to perform a Mazzoli chamber opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will be moving some of its productions to the outdoor Delacorte Theater at Central Park.
Groups like the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy , Baltimore Symphony, and Institute for Composer Diversity have done the work of analyzing orchestra seasons to show dismal (but ever-so-slightly improving!) representation of women composers in main stage works. It sometimes happens that works by women and composers from other historically marginalized groups to be included by mainstream organizations, but then re-marginalized by being relegated to a separate chamber music series or even to an alternate venue. I could do the math and recreate this type of analysis for opera houses, but I’d rather have you look up your local opera’s main stage season and note whether there are any productions by composers from historically underrepresented groups. (Statistically, it’s much more likely that it is presenting at least one of the following: Aida, La Traviata, Carmen, La Bohème, Tosca, or Don Giovanni.)
It is important to call out large organizations for their systemic underrepresentation of women. But one of the things that strikes me about this fantastic list of over 500 operas by women is how many of these pieces could be easily produced by smaller organizations. There are solo operas, mini-operas, chamber operas, and even operas that can be performed by (and for) children. Historical privileging of “grand opera” styles also privileges large well-funded opera companies and venues, and maintains the idea of opera as a one-in-a-lifetime spectacle, where watching Aida under-the-stars in Verona becomes the only opera experience that many individuals ever have. How sad! (And yes, I’ve done it myself. Aida was lovely, but I could hardly see the performers, the stone seats were uncomfortable, and the mosquitoes seemed to be the only ones who were able to truly lose themselves in moments of ecstasy.)
While I may not have personally witnessed Saariajo’s L’amour de Loin in New York, the fact is that I have been fortunate to see many operas by women performed on smaller stages, including the American premieres of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers at the Bard Music Festival (in 2015), Jessica Rudman’s Trigger by the Hartford Opera Theater in 2016, and Dawn Sonntag’s Evangeline at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford in 2017 — among many other wonderful and fulfilling productions. Resources like this database of over 500 operas by women help smaller companies present stories and characters that will be meaningful in their own communities and to engage with local audiences in powerful, intimate ways that simply can’t be achieved in a large-scale production focused on flashing lights and mechanical elephants. (And yet, there are works that warrant that kind of spectacle in the database too! Like Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo (Respighi)’s Puccini-esque Samurai. Drop me an email if you’d like to know where the full score for that one is.)
For all of the great work we are doing to question and deconstruct the mainstream institutions of classical music, my greatest hope is that we are also helping to make space for these smaller and more intimate experiences with classical music and opera — both that which was composed historically and that being written today. These grassroots productions, where performers and directors often have to look the audience in the eye, may even be the antidote to “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies, murdered” that Catherine Clément laments in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Original: L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes, 1979).
I hope you’ll take a stroll through this new database and find some suggestions to send to your favorite local opera company. Or better yet, consider presenting a production yourself! Whether your pockets of resources are shallow or deep, the database has something that will fit your budget and capture your imagination.